WASHINGTON, Oct 2 (Reuters) US security contractor Blackwater, under investigation over deadly incidents in Iraq, defended its role today, but lawmakers took aim at the company's actions in a September 16 shooting in which 11 Iraqis were killed.
Blackwater founder and former Navy SEAL Erik Prince said in testimony prepared for the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that his staff acted ''appropriately'' on that day in a very complex war zone.
''There has been a rush to judgment based on inaccurate information, and many public reports have wrongly pronounced Blackwater's guilt for the deaths of varying numbers of civilians,'' Prince said in the testimony.
''Congress should not accept these allegations as truth until it has the facts,'' added Prince.
Iraq's government has been strongly critical of Blackwater, which provides security for the US State Department in Iraq, and has called the shooting incident a crime.
Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, said there were serious questions about Blackwater's performance and the Sept. 16 shooting was just the latest in a number of ''troubling'' incidents.
''Is Blackwater, a private military contractor, helping or hurting our efforts in Iraq,'' Waxman asked in his opening statement.
''Blackwater will be accountable,'' he added.
Blackwater, which has received US government contracts worth more than a billion dollars since 2001, is under intense scrutiny over its security work in Iraq, where Prince said the North Carolina firm had about 1,000 personnel.
The hearing comes amid growing questions over the role of private contractors in Iraq and whether the US government relies too heavily on outsiders to perform jobs traditionally done by the military.
A report prepared by committee staff listed 195 shooting incidents involving Blackwater in Iraq from the start of 2005 until September 12 of this year, an average of 1.4 per week.
'VERY COMPLEX WAR ZONE' Of those, there were 16 Iraqi casualties and 162 cases with property damage. In 84 percent of the incidents, Blackwater fired first, the report said.
There are at least three investigations into the September 16 Blackwater incident, which occurred while the contractor was protecting US Embassy staff in a convoy through Baghdad.
''Based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone on September 16,'' Prince said.
State Department diplomatic security, the FBI, the Pentagon and a joint Iraq-US team is looking into what happened.
The committee's report accused the State Department of not doing enough to make Blackwater accountable for its actions and of helping it to cover up incidents involving Iraqi casualties.
''It appears that the State Department's primary response was to ask Blackwater to make monetary payments to put the 'matter behind us' rather than to insist upon accountability or to investigate Blackwater personnel for potential criminal liability,'' it said.
State Department Iraq coordinator, David Satterfield, testified that high standards and professionalism were demanded of its contractors and that any incidents involving force were investigated.
REUTERS RS RAI2100